What Causes Colic?

Black horse with glistening coat, rolling in the grass.

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Horses can have colic for innumerable reasons and even with veterinarian care, the cause can go undiscovered. It’s important to remember that colic is a symptom, not a disease in itself. So because it is a symptom of another problem, there is no one sure-fire treatment that will alleviate all colics. Some colics might be just a "tummy ache" from a change in the weather or mental upset. Or, colic symptoms may indicate a far more serious, even life-threatening problem.

Common Causes of Colic

The distress that a horse is in while it colics indicates that something is going wrong with the digestive system. Here are some common reasons your horse may be exhibiting colic symptoms:

  • Changes in feed
  • An accumulation of sand in the caecum is called sand colic
  • Ingesting fungus from moldy hay
  • Ingesting foreign objects can all trigger colic symptoms.
  • Some owners claim nervous horses can experience a change in management
  • Senior horses in response to rapid air pressure changes may develop spasmodic colic. (No conclusive clinical information supports this claim.)

Impaction Colic

Impaction colic can happen more commonly during the winter months when horses or ponies are fed hay and have only frigid water to drink. But if a horse is chronically dehydrated, this type of colic can happen at any time. The combination of dry feed and dehydration can be disastrous. Because the horses don't drink enough water the food forms an obstruction in the intestine. A horse that eats its bedding or accidentally gorges on grain can suffer from impaction colic. (Overeating grain or fruit can also cause laminitis or founder.)

Parasite Damage

Parasite damage or load can cause a horse to exhibit colic symptoms. The parasites irritate the intestinal tract as they cause damage. Horses with a parasite load, or who have just been dewormed because they have a heavy parasite load may colic. Parasites can also cause damage to the intestines that can lead to ongoing problems. This is why it is so important to keep internal parasites in check with an effective, regular deworming program.

Kidney stones may also cause colic symptoms. Anything that goes awry with the internal organs may make the horse appear colicky.

Cold Water

Colic can be caused by too much food eaten too quickly, or drinking a large amount of cold water. Especially if the horse has EGUS, it may be colicky after eating or drinking a large amount. When the weather is cold, keep your horse's water above frigid temperatures with a heated bucket, a trough heater, or by carrying out hot water to mix with the cold. This will prevent a cold shock to its belly. And, if your horse drinks more in the winter, it's less likely to suffer impaction colic.

Intestinal Twists

Twisted intestines and telescoped sections of intestines occur and the cause is unclear. Some people believe it happens when a horse rolls, it can cause a loop of intestine to loop, telescope, or twist. Some feel it's more likely to happen with big barreled horses or mares who have had several foals. Fatty deposits on the intestines can cause them to flip or twist. Some horses have had multiple surgeries to correct twists. It's not known the exact reason this happens.

Unknown Factors

Any horse regardless of age or temperament can have a bout of colic and often the root cause goes undiscovered.